Staff Spotlight: John Holt, Director of Legal Services

statue of Justice holding the scales

Q: What was your first introduction to the world of guardianships?

A: In the summer after my first year at Brooklyn Law School, I did an externship with the Long Term Care Community Coalition, where I was part of a team studying how people’s quality of care was affected by New York State’s methods of Medicaid reimbursement. We looked at regulations across the country as well. I continued working there after the externship was over in order to help get the project across the finish line. We produced a white paper, and our efforts resulted in reforms. At the same time, my grandmother was moving out of the home she had lived in since the late 1940s, and into an assisted living facility. It became clear to me that I wanted to work in the public interest.

Q: How did you come to be part of Project Guardianship?

A:  I was taking a public health course with an externship component, which I chose to do with The Guardianship Project (as it was then called) because it worked on care issues similar to those of my previous externship, but in addition to policy work, it also involved direct client services, in which I was very interested. I accompanied lawyers to court and got hands-on experience drafting items that would then be filed with the court. Learning the nuts and bolts helped me better understand how courts function. It was a fascinating time.

Q: What is it like day-to-day as Project Guardianship’s Director of Legal Services & Policy?

A:  There are a million things to do, every single day, and many deadlines. Part of the work is to bounce from crisis to crisis, but actually, crises are where I work best sometimes. In a moment of crisis, the field of vision narrows and you have to use a small set of facts to come up with something that’s going to work.

But it’s the relationship with the client that is key to everything. Without it, you can’t provide guardianship in a way that centers that person’s autonomy whenever feasible. You need good information, external social supports, and technical expertise, and with this combination we’ve been successful. And the client is always the first priority. If a person needs help, deadlines and schedules do not matter: we address the issue. This is not an index number in a database, this is a real human being.

Our case managers interact with clients every day, but it’s also essential for attorneys like myself to be in constant contact with our clients. And that’s a wonderful part of the job, because every client has a unique experience or story, and to help that person is to open a door to memories and insights on our world and its past.

Q: What skills from your education or previous experiences do you apply to this position?

A:  I majored in history as an undergraduate because I had a fascination with stories of the past. Historians read primary sources and work at understanding their context to ultimately bring shape to a story. I apply this every day to my work with clients, to genuinely get to know them through home visits and seeing their possessions, photos, and letters.

And of course I bring my legal experiences to bear every day, and this includes diving into the state’s health statutes and having discussions with elected officials and civil servants.

Q: What is the most rewarding thing about your job?

A:  People are genuinely appreciative when you take the time to talk to them and find out what they want and need. It’s not only about the big picture—coordinating a plan of care, medical equipment, finances, the physical home environment, legal documentation. It’s about the small successes the team achieves together step by step. For example, getting an air conditioner installed for a client who was suffering from the intense summer heat. Moving a client from a nursing home back into an apartment they thought they’d never see again. The look on that person’s face when they enter their home again after two years—that is the reward.

Q: What is your philosophy about doing this work?

A:  There’s no such thing as passive guardianship. It’s multi-layered and complex: It takes intellectual work as well as sweat and legwork. Guardianship is a function of what you put into it, and our standard of care is to do the extra work that isn’t legally required but is necessary in order to do the work in a culturally competent way, in order to treat every client as the unique person they are.